Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Experiences of a History Detective

I’ve recently had the delightful opportunity to play history detective. One of my projects this summer at the Oil Museum of Canada involved investigating the identity of the man who struck Canada’s first oil gusher on January 16th, 1862. Secondary sources over the last sixty years have generally cited Hugh Nixon Shaw; however, recent scholarship has suggested that it was a man named John Shaw. I had the chance to investigate a question that will be extremely relevant in two years, when the Oil Museum of Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of Canada’s first oil gushers, accompanied by special events and an interpretive focus on the oil men who brought in over thirty gushers in 1862.

Sometimes, the research is extremely satisfying, and you stumble across a tidbit you couldn’t have imagined existed; other times, a source that you’re positive will reveal something imperative is a near bust. Here are two examples from my work that demonstrate these principles of historic investigations.

I’ve been working with a lot of 1860s newspapers that were reporting on the oil region. While scanning through microfilmed pages of the Sarnia Observer of 1866, I happened to pause on May 11th’s issue, and the name “John Shaw” jumped out at me. As I proceeded to read the article, it was a piece reporting that “Mr. John Shaw, who suddenly found himself famous one day early in 1862, is about to give the old spot another good ‘try’ over again.” Pure dumb luck, and I’d found a gem; an article I hadn’t seen referenced in any secondary material that strongly suggested John Shaw had brought in the gusher (especially when one takes into consideration the fact that Hugh Nixon Shaw died of noxious fumes in an oil well in 1863).

Now, the flip side of pure dumb luck is the source you’re expecting will be your Holy Grail, and turns out to be disappointing. I’d found some vague references to the fact that Hugh Nixon Shaw kept a journal between 1861 and 1863, but no historians discussed the journal’s contents in detail. Upon discovering the Archives of Ontario had a copy, I arranged a bus trip to Toronto, and spent hours on various incarnations of public transit to get to York University. When I got to archives and settled down with the microfilm, I was disappointed to discover that the handwriting was nearly illegible, the machine’s light/focus knobs could offer little assistance, and the journal was incomplete (entire months missing). I’d imagined that the journal would prove my case one way or another: either he brags about the gusher, so he brought it in; or there is no mention of the gusher whatsoever in his January 1862 entries, meaning that he most likely didn’t bring it in (the increase in oil production should show up in his business tallies.) Unfortunately, there were no January 1862 entries, or entries for several months before or after January. While the source was interesting, it was inconclusive for my research.

With historic investigations, prepare to be happily surprised and crushingly disappointed, but always eager to keep looking for the next source that will help make your case!